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The Sciences

Conversion Fantasies

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyJanuary 26, 2006 5:49 AM


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Just imagine the uproar we would hear if every time a Jew was featured in a Hollywood film or mini-series, he or she converted to Christianity by the end. Such a situation would be intolerable and widely denounced, and rightly so. Yet Hollywood does precisely the same thing to another minority group--atheists and agnostics--and nobody even makes the slightest fuss about it. It happens again and again: In supernatural thriller after supernatural thriller, an atheist/agnostic character is gradually brought around to a belief in forces beyond. In a UFO flicks, former "skeptics" repeatedly convert into believers in the face of overwhelming evidence. In another variation on the theme, previously lapsed religious believers constantly find faith again in Hollywood dramas, such as M. Night Shyamalan's terrible film Signs.

And then there are the simply outrageous films like The Exorcism of Emily Rose, which I just watched on my plane ride out to the West Coast today (I'm here for a conference). This movie not only features an "agnostic" who comes to believe in demonic forces; the plot centers on a courtroom drama designed to "prove" that such forces actually exist. Incredible. As reviewer A.O. Scott put it in The New York Times:

...objecting to silliness in a horror movie is a bit unfair. The whole point of the genre - the fun as well as the terror - lies in the suspension of disbelief. "The Exorcism of Emily Rose," however, goes a bit further. Announcing from the start that it is "based on a true story" (words guaranteed to scare most movie critics), it tries to nudge its audience toward a real-world condition of belief in the supernatural doings it depicts.

If only a few popular films contained these anti-atheist/anti-skeptic themes, it would be one thing. But in fact, it's hard to find one that doesn't. What is this, if not cultural majoritarianism disguised as entertainment?

And of course, the notion that such fictional conversions prove anything--as Emily Rose seems to suggest--is laughable. In the context of paranormal films, skeptic conversions come as no surprise, because within the reality of the fictional worlds constructed by such movies the supernatural does indeed exist. Only a fool would remain atheistic or agnostic in the face of some of the freaky shit that characters experience in Hollywood paranormal thrillers.

But in our world, the real world, atheists and agnostics and skeptics aren't fools. Nothing in their experience matches the narratives constructed in movies, and accordingly, they don't claim to believe things for which there's no evidence. It says something, I think, that Hollywood must construct fictional narratives in order to convert them--kind of like the way that Michael Crichton relied on a fictional narrative to question global warming.

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